Kristian Bush Talks Solo Work, Sugarland's Future

Kristian Bush live 2013 L

With Jennifer Nettles on baby leave, and music's business models shifting, the multi-platinum group's other half looks at all his options.

If you’re part of one of America’s bestselling country bands, you might not think that the ideal place to launch your solo career is a few thousand miles east of the Mason-Dixon line. But Europe is just where Sugarland’s Kristian Bush ended up kicking off his side vocation as a solo artist. And it happened in a pretty roundabout way that his reinvention took place in the land of roundabouts.

Bush’s first solo single, “Love or Money,” has only officially been released in England so far. A full album could follow, he says, because “people who are hearing the song are going ‘Wow, are there more?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean? Truckloads!’”

Six weeks ago, he was just cutting songwriting demos and had no intention of putting anything out commercially. But then fate and the UK intervened.

Bush’s more visible partner in Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles, has been on baby leave, putting the multi-platinum duo on indefinite hold. During the interim, Bush decided to take the Country Music Association up on an offer to participate in an international initiative that has Nashville songwriters showcasing their work in small clubs and theaters around the world. He’d signed up for one of those evangelistic overseas tours when a promoter in London noticed that he’d be over there in March, at around the same time the 02 Arena was set to host the city’s first huge multi-day country music festival.

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“I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to. But you understand this is a solo gig?’ She said, ‘Of course.’ She’s been a promoter for us over there for a long time, so she’s aware not just of what I’ve done in this band but previous bands, and what my voice sounds like.” (Before going country and co-founding Sugarland -- in which he surrendered all lead vocals to Nettles -- Bush was part of Billy Pilgrim, a rock duo he formed with Andrew Hyra, Meg Ryan’s brother. That band released two albums on Atlantic in the mid-‘90s.) He quickly put a band together for the London show.

Shortly before the 02 Arena gig, he found himself on a panel with Jay Marciano, the CEO of AEG Europe, which was putting on the C2C (Country-to-Country) Festival. Marciano said AEG was “making big investments into data mining” but obtaining and using fans’ email addresses “would be better if it had a song or something attached to it. It was such a refreshing attitude to get from what you think would be a big business promoter: Your fans love you, I’d love to connect you to them, could you add this song to it?”

In the hallway afterward, Bush queried Marciano about how serious he was about sending a freebie to everyone attending the festival. “That communication led to a week later saying, ‘Hey, let’s give this song away.’ It’s awesome to watch the music business do its thing the way you always kind of dreamed it would, which is ‘Hey, sure,’ instead of ‘We don’t know, we’re scared, we’re concerned.’ The self-identified country fans of the UK were all coming to this festival, and the BBC has been playing songs by Jennifer and I for a long time.” So it wasn’t such a tough call -- the morning after the festival ended, 25,000 attendees got a download of Bush’s song as a thank-you.

“Love or Money” was also released commercially by Universal in Europe, for those who didn’t attend the festival and get it as a freebie. Which led to the question: What to do about Sugarland’s American fans who want it? “I said, ‘Oh man, is there any way we can make this an import?’ They turned to me and said, ‘What’s an import?’ They were younger than I am, and suddenly I was like, oh, I don’t know if that works any more in the digital world. I remember when imports were in a different part of the store and cost more money, there might be a 7-inch with different artwork, and it maybe had a B-side that was recorded live at BBC.” Once he rejoined 2013, Bush found it “fun to be in a think tank with people in the business thinking about ‘How can we make this work?’”

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He’s still not sure. “The truth of it is, yeah, I’d love to release it in the U.S. This would be more intentional than ‘Hey, how about if we sent a thank-you note?’ Though maybe it’s that simple. Maybe there is a way to say thank you to the U.S. Let me know if you’ve got any ideas…”

Of course, everything is released everywhere now, thanks to pirating, and Bush has put the song up on YouTube for the world to hear -- which leads to the question of whether he intends to take this detour seriously enough to pursue it to its logical end, a solo album. He swears he’s only been seriously considering it since this inadvertent European sojourn.

In America, “first of all, [Universal Nashville head] Mike [Dungan]'s got a bunch on his plate because he’s got four labels now. I don’t know how quick they’ll be interested in it. But don’t think I won’t ask the question. It’s hard not to go back and look at my songwriting catalog and go, look, there are 600 to 700 songs here. There are 50 just from this year, and we’re barely into April.”

He’s got time, he figures. “If a record becomes part of this, absolutely, without blinking, I would tour it. Jennifer wants to be a mom and experience that, and I totally understand because I have two kids and raised them through all this. I think you have to trust mothers on that kind of stuff. In my experience, they sometimes want more time and sometimes get antsy that they want to get back to work. There’s an identity thing that goes on where you spend so much time caring for your child that after a year or so you have to shake it off and go ‘Who am I?’ [Either way] I am nothing but supportive of that experience for her or anybody else. We haven’t talked about an end date. We decided not to write anything for the next record until the other side of the baby, which seems like a good choice, because she’s going to see world differently after the baby than before. So I think there’s plenty of time [for solo projects] right now. The events of the last weeks happened fast, and I’m not scared of fast.”

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Bush looks back with fondness on being a country music emissary in Europe, both on the acoustic dates and at the full-band 02 Arena show. For country fans overseas, who might consider themselves a hungry and possibly oppressed minority, he says, “it must be what it was like for me back in the ‘80s when I would see one of these new wave bands were coming through town that nobody would play on the radio.”

And, as much as that, he’s thrilled about having been part of a new model for making an immediate connection between the live experience and freshly recorded studio music. “I think it’s a significant shift in the feeling that the promoter is really interested in connecting the artist to the fans,” Bush says. “Especially with the way the business is wild west-y feeling right now. As a promoter, of course you’d really want the people who pay for the tickets to come into your venue to really be even more connected with the band. That’s a significant paradigm shift right there.”

Twitter: @chriswillman